Retail & Social Media

In an age of WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Instagram, retailers are challenged to reinvent themselves and connect with customers in relevant new ways.


Today, you can buy just about anything from anywhere with a swipe on a handheld device. For some, this underscores an age of social media where retailers must fight against constant distraction. But for Gensler’s designers and thought leaders, online retail and social media offer a rich challenge to extend a brand experience and deepen strategic approaches to design. Gone are the days of pitting e-commerce against brick-and-mortar retail, a period when web activity struggled to direct consumers to a physical store—clicks-to-bricks. “The current language is clicks-and-bricks, because it’s happening as a seamless engagement to our consumers,” explains Gensler’s Jill Nickels.

Amenities that enhance

Consider rapidly changing retail trends as a lightning-fast round of improv comedy. The game: Yes, and. The “yes” affirms this fast-paced condition, which is played out in real time on the street, in the mall, and on the sofa. The “and” is all about adding to the experience—for consumers and retailers.

Because consumer desires are driven by the ever-changing allure of social media, retailers are constantly challenged to reinvent and introduce novelty.

Familiar “ands,” such as a coffee bar or DJ booth, are commonplace. These added amenities draw from hospitality and are meant to personalize the retail experience and increase how much time consumers spend in a space—the “dwell time,” according to Gensler’s Kathleen Jordan. The right amenity doesn’t compete or distract with the product being sold, but offers a complementary use and a respite that allows consumers to recharge and extend their day.

Jordan suggests that the coffee bar concept has peaked—even inviting local coffee roasters to set up in retail spaces has become a cliché. Instead, she works with clients to figure out what amenities and partnerships align and support the overall brand. This could mean a juice bar, barbershop, nail salon, or even a taco stand. “It’s the experiences that you associate with the brand in a positive way and you want to go back to, because visiting the store is like visiting a whole bunch of spaces all at once,” Jordan explains, citing El Palacio de Hierro’s flagship in Polanco, Mexico City. There, Gensler curated a series of gourmet vendors serving the city’s authentic heritage cuisine, bringing street food to a luxury department store.

Reinvention, novelty, and flexibility

Because consumer desires are driven by the ever-changing allure of social media, retailers are constantly challenged to reinvent and introduce novelty, no matter how original their amenities, says Gensler’s Michael Gatti. “As retail designers, we strive to create wonderful, timely, and unique experiences for the customer that unfortunately at times may not be as wonderful in two months,” he says, adding that designers must create spaces that are flexible to changing tastes, interests, and seasons. “Consumers are going to react to what’s happening in style and where things are going.”

For Primark’s 80,700-square-foot store in Pennsylvania’s King of Prussia Mall, the second US location for the Irish clothing retailer, Gensler designed experiential moments into this new prototype, such as digital displays utilizing content from Primark’s #PRIMANIA and integrated Instagrammable opportunities that are sprinkled across the sales floor to engage a key consumer: digital natives/millennials. Generous fitting-room areas (an instant selfie hub where shoppers can upload photos of their “haul” or themselves sporting Primark apparel) offer respite from the bustling sales floor, and charging stations are embedded throughout the space for customer convenience. “Primark’s priority is to provide an amazing environment and customer experience that matches its emphasis on ‘amazing fashion’ for its product,” says Jordan.

With three floors of memorabilia, merchandise, and state-of-the-art retail technology, NBA’s flagship store on New York’s Fifth Avenue invites fans to truly be part of the game. A 400-square-foot video wall displays real-time game footage, news, and social media posts—all of which can be seen from the sidewalk. Interactive touchscreens provide access to’s vast inventory and allow fans to shop and locate top-selling merchandise. Video-game kiosks, pop-a-shots, and player measure-ups offer a more analog interactive experience to complement the digital program.

Design is integral to retail brands, integrating everything from the digital experience to how sales staff provide service, and how the stores themselves cultivate communities of buyers.

The design for CoolMess, a new ice cream concept store in New York, reflects the joyful experience of making ice cream, with moments of “mess” expressed through vibrant colors and graphics. Photo and social media opportunities throughout the space prompt kids and tweens to post and share photos of themselves and their ice cream creations on the #CoolIsTheNewHot Instagram feed. A magnetic photo wall features customers who have posted parties in the space, and even the bathroom provides a “selfie moment,” with bold “inkblot” graphics and backwards messaging in the mirror.

An integrated experience

To deepen the retail experience, Gensler teams extend their areas of expertise from real life to the web. Design is integrated across the brand, from the digital experience to how sales staff provide service and how the store fosters community.

Gensler’s design for messenger bag company Timbuk2 in Portland, Oregon, created a natural synthesis between the brand’s association with cycling and the community’s values. The space offers a free bike repair station and is also a hub for Bike Share, a program that allows customers to borrow a bike, helmet, and Timbuk2 bag to tour the city. “It’s beyond purchasing a bag or product from them,” Nickels explains. “It’s how the brand represents their beliefs.”

Similarly, NYX Professional Makeup retail stores cater to the makeup community locally and online; celebrating both enthusiasts and professionals with scrolling Instagram images and touchpoints that link users to product tutorials and information. Gensler integrated digital displays—both monitors and touchscreens—into the artist loft-inspired space.

With Indian apparel retailer Raymond, Gensler embraced technology to communicate with a digitally savvy customer. “One of our primary goals in the store was to create a richer experience for the customer by leveraging technology,” Nickels says. She describes a scenario where shoppers select their size from a tablet and then garments appear in a fitting room that is loaded directly from the back of the house, leaving the sales floor minimal, almost gallery-like. “We call it ‘attentive technology,’ where technology acts as a sales associate. But there is also that human connection. The sales associate becomes more of a style expert or trusted advisor.”

Gensler’s Keisuke Kobayashi echoes the need for a “high hospitality” experience. “The level of service, in terms of the human emotional response, is traditional in Japan, so it is something people expect,” he notes, adding that retail service extends to in-store recommendations made through digital tools, such as tablets or apps. When brands use digital and live feeds in the store environment, it’s not enough just to have screens filled with compelling images, he says. “Sales staff need to be trained not just to sell or to advise customers, but to really talk about the brand history, where it comes from, and utilize all the digital tools and live streams to build customer relationships. That’s the only way to gain and win repeat customers in Japan.”

Connecting with brand ambassadors

Gensler’s Lara Marrero emphasizes that retailers’ successes come from turning customers into brand advocates. “Right now, the strongest place to make brand advocates is through the peer-to-peer network, best seen through social media,” she explains. “An ‘influencer’ could drive 28 people to go to the space to check it out and potentially generate sales for 12 of those folks.” Giving people something to talk about on social media is what Marrero calls the “gold dust” retailers are banking on, especially when brand loyalty is at an all-time low. “A personal recommendation is far more valuable to a brand than advertising.”